This is a link to my latest paper, published in the closing days of 2022. The paper started as a couple of blog posts that I turned into a paper that nearly made an appearance in the Distance Education in China journal before a last-minute regime change in the editorial staff led to it being dropped, and it was then picked up by the OTESSA Journal after I shared it online, so you might have seen some of it before. My thanks to all the many editors, reviewers (all of whom gave excellent suggestions and feedback that I hope I’ve addressed in the final version), and online commentators who have helped to make it a better paper. Though it took a while I have really enjoyed the openness of the process, which has been quite different from any that I’ve followed in the past.
The paper begins with an exploration of the many ways that environments are both shaped by and shape how learning happens, both online and in-person. The bulk of the paper then presents an argument to stop using the word “environment” to describe online systems for learning. Partly this is because online “environments” are actually parts of the learner’s environment, rather than vice versa. Mainly, it is because of the baggage that comes with the term, which leads us to (poorly) replicate solutions to problems that don’t exist online, in the process creating new problems that we fail to adequately solve because we are so stuck in ways of thinking and acting due to the metaphors on which they are based. My solution is not particularly original, but it bears repeating. Essentially, it is to disaggregate services needed to support learning so that:
they can be assembled into learners’ environments (their actual environments) more easily;
they can be adapted and evolve as needed; and, ultimately,
online learning institutions can be reinvented without all the vast numbers of counter-technologies and path dependencies inherited from their in-person counterparts that currently weigh them down.
My own views have shifted a little since writing the paper. I stick by my belief that 1) it is a mistake to think of online systems as generally analogous to the physical spaces that we inhabit, and 2) that a single application, or suite of applications, should not be seen as an environment, as such (at most, as in some uses of VR, it might be seen as a simulation of one). However, there are (shifting) boundaries that can be placed around the systems that an organization and/or an individual uses for which the metaphor may be useful, at the very least to describe the extent to which we are inside or outside it, and that might frame the various kinds of distance that may exist within it and from it. I’m currently working on a paper that expands on this idea a bit more.
In online educational systems, teachers often replicate pedagogical methods, and online institutions replicate systems and structures used by their in-person counterparts, the only purpose of which was to solve problems created by having to teach in a physical environment. Likewise, virtual learning environments often attempt to replicate features of their physical counterparts, thereby weakly replicating in software the problems that in-person teachers had to solve. This has contributed to a vicious circle of problem creation and problem solving that benefits no one. In this paper I argue that the term ‘environment’ is a dangerously misleading metaphor for the online systems we build to support learning, that leads to poor pedagogical choices and weak digital solutions. I propose an alternative metaphor of infrastructure and services that can enable more flexible, learner-driven, and digitally native ways of designing systems (including the tools, pedagogies, and structures) to support learning.
Why do we build digital learning systems to mimic classrooms?
It is understandable that, when we teach in person, we have to occupy and make different uses of the same or similar environments like classrooms, labs, workshops, lecture theatres, and offices. There are huge financial, physical, and organizational constraints on making the environment fit the task, so it would be madness to build a whole new classroom every time we wished to run a different class.
Online, we could build anything we like
But why do we do the same when we teach online? There are countless tools available and, if none are suitable, it is not too hard to build them or modify them to suit our needs. Once they are built, moving between them just takes a tap of a screen or the click of a mouse. Heck, you can even occupy several of them at once if you have a decent monitor or more than one device.
So why don’t we do this?
Here are a few of the more obvious reasons that using the perfect app for the context of study rarely happens:
Teachers’ lack of knowledge of the options (it takes time and effort to discover what’s available).
Teachers’ lack of skill in using them (most interesting tools have a learning curve, and that gets steeper in inverse proportion to the softness and diversity of the toolset, so most teachers don’t even know how to make the most of what they already have).
Lack of time and/or money for development (a real-life application is what it contains, not just the shell that contains it, and it is not always as easy to take existing stuff and put it in a new tool as it might be in a physical space).
Costs and difficulties in management (each tool adds costs in managing faults, configuration, accounting for use, performance, and security).
Cognitive load involved for learners in adapting to the metaphors, signposts, and methods needed to use the tool itself.
All of these are a direct consequence of the very diversity that would make us want to use different apps in the first place. This is a classic Faustian bargain in which the technology does what we want, and in the process creates new problems to solve. Every virtual system invents at least some of the dynamics of how people and things interact with it and within it. In effect, every app has its own physics. That makes them harder to find out about, harder to learn, harder to develop, costlier to manage, and more difficult to navigate than the static, fixed facilities found in particular physical locations. They are all different, there are few if any universals, and any universal today may become a conditional tomorrow. Gravity doesn’t necessarily work the same way in virtual systems.
And so we get learning management systems
The learning management system (LMS) kind of deals with all of these problems: poorly, harmfully, boringly, and painfully, but it does deal with them. Currently, most of the teaching at Athabasca University is through the open source Moodle LMS, lightly modified by us because our needs are not quite like others (self-pacing and all that). But Moodle is not special: in terms of what it does and how it does it, it is not significantly different from any other mainstream LMS – Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas, Sakai, whatever.
Almost every LMS essentially automates the functions, though not exactly the form, of traditional classrooms. In other parts of the world people prefer to use the term ‘managed learning environment’ (MLE) for such things, and it is the most dominant representative of a larger category of systems usually described as virtual learning environments (VLEs) that also includes things like MOOs (multi-user dungeons, object oriented), immersive learning environments, and simpler web-based teaching systems that replicate aspects of classrooms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft’s gnarly bundle of hastily repurposed rubbish for teaching that I’m not sure even has a name yet. Notice the spatial metaphors in many of these names.
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
The people who originally designed LMSs back in the 90s (I did so myself) based their designs on the functions and entities found in a traditional university because that was their context, and that was where they had to fit. Metaphorically, an LMS or MLE is a big university building with rather uniform classrooms, with perhaps a yard where you can camp out with a few other systems (plugins, LTI hooks, etc) that conform to its requirements and that are allowed in to classrooms when invited, and a few doors and gateways (mainly hyperlinks) linking it circuitously or in jury-rigged fashion to other similarly weakly connected buildings (e.g. places to register, places to seek support, places to talk to an advisor, places to complain, places to find books, and so on). It doesn’t have metaphorical corridors, halls, common rooms, canteens, yards, libraries or any of the other things that normally make up a physical university. You rarely get to even be aware of other classrooms beyond those you are in. Some people (me in a past life) might give classrooms cute names like ‘the learning cafe’ but it’s still just another classroom. You teleport from one classroom to the next because what happens in corridors (really a big lot of incredibly important pedagogically useful stuff, as it happens) is not perceived by the designers as a useful classroom function to be automated or perhaps, more charitably, they just couldn’t figure out how to automate that.
It’s a very controlled environment where everyone has a programmatically enforced role (mostly reflecting traditional educational roles), that may vary according to the room, but that are far less fluid than those in physical spaces. There are strong hierarchies, and limited opportunities for moving between them. Some of those hierarchies are new: the system administrator, for instance, has way more power than anyone in a physical university to determine how learning happens, like an architect with the power to move walls, change the decor, add extensions, and so on, at will. The programmers of the system are almost god-like in their command of its physics. But the ways that they give teachers (or learning designers, or administrators) control, as designers, directors, and regulators of the classroom, are perhaps the most pernicious. In a classroom a teacher may lead (and, by default, usually does). In an LMS, a teacher (or someone playing that role) must lead. The teacher sees things that students cannot, and controls things that the students may not. A teacher configures the space, and determines with some precision how it will be used. With a lot of effort and risk, it can be made to behave differently, but it almost never is.
Functions are everything
An LMS is typically built along functional lines, and those functions are mostly based on loose, superficial observations of what teachers and students seem to do in physical classrooms. The metaphorical classrooms are weird, because they are structured by teaching (seldom learning) function rather than along pedagogical lines: for instance, if you want to talk with someone, you normally need to go to a separate enclosed area inside the classroom or leave a note on the teacher’s desk. Same if you want to take a test, or share your work with others. Another function, another space. Some have many little rooms for different things. Lectures are either literally that (video recordings) or (more usefully, from a learning perspective), text and images to be read on screen, based on the assumption that the only function of lectures is information transmission (it is so very, very much not – that’s its least useful and least effective role). There’s seldom a chance to put even put up your hand to question something. Notices can usually only be pinned on the wall by teachers. Classroom timetables are embodied in software because of course you need a rigid and unforgiving timetable in a medium that sells itself on enabling learning anywhere, any time. Some, including Moodle, will allow you to break up the content differently, but it’s still another timetable; just a timetable without dates. It’s still the teacher who sets the order, pacing and content.
It’s a high-tech classroom. There are often robots there that are programmed to make you behave in ways determined by those higher in the hierarchy (sometimes teachers, sometimes administrators, sometimes the programmers of the software). For instance, they might act as gatekeepers that prevent you from moving on to the next section before completing the current one, or they might prevent you submitting work before or after a specified date. They might mark your work. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, recording your every move, often only accessible to those with more powerful roles (though sometimes a robot or two might give you a filtered view of it).
Beginnings and ends
You can’t usually go back and visit when your course is over because someone decided it would be a good idea to set opening and closing enrolment dates and assumed that, when they were done, the learning was done (which of course it never is – it keeps on evolving long after explicit teaching and testing occurred). Again, it’s because physical classes are scheduled and terms come to an end because they must be, not because it makes pedagogical sense. And, like almost everything, you can override this default, but hardly anyone ever does, because it brings back those Faustian bargains, especially in manageability.
Dull caricatures of physical spaces
Basically, the LMS is an automated set of metaphorical classrooms that hardens many of the undesirable by-products of educational systems in software in brain-dead ways that have little to do with how best to teach, and that stretch the spatial metaphors that inform it beyond breaking point. Each bit of automation and each navigational decision hardens pedagogical choices. For all the cozy metaphors, programmers invent rather than replicate physics, in the process warping reality in ways that do no good and much harm. Classrooms solved problems of physics for in-person teaching and form part of a much larger structure that has evolved to teach reasonably well (including corridors, common rooms, canteens, and libraries, as it happens). Their more visible functions are only a part of that and, arguably, not the main part. There is much pedagogy embedded in the ways that physical universities, whether by accident or design, have evolved over centuries to support learning in every quadrangle and nook of a coffee shop. LMSs just focus on a limited subset of teaching roles, and empower the teacher in ways that caricature their already excessive dominance in the classroom (which only occurred because it had to, thanks to physics and the constraints it imposed).
LMSs are crap, but they contain recognizable semblances of their physical counterparts and just enough configurability and flexibility to more or less work as teaching tools, a bit, for everyone, almost no matter what their level of digital proficiency might be. They more or less solve the Faustian bargains listed earlier, but they do so by stifling what we wanted and should have been able to do in the first place with online tools, in the process creating new and quite horrific problems, as well as demolishing most of what makes physical universities work in the first place. It never has been true that virtual learning environments are learning environments – they are only ever parts of them – and there are places to escape from them, such as the Landing, other virtual systems, or even just plain old email, but then all those Faustian bargains come back to haunt us again. There has to be a better way.
Beyond the LMS
Cognisant of the issues, Athabasca University is now some way down the path to developing its own distinctive solutions to these problems, in a multi-year multi-million-dollar initiative known as (following the spatial metaphor) the Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). The ILE is not an application. It is an umbrella term for a lot of different, usually independent systems working together as one. Though some of the most interesting opportunities are still only loosely imagined, perhaps because they cause problems that are fiendishly hard to solve (e.g. how can we integrate systems that we build ourselves without creating risks for the rest of the ILE, and what happens when they need to be maintained?) a lot of progress is being made on the non-teaching foundations on which the rest depends (student admin systems, support tools, procedures, etc), as well as on the most visible and perhaps the biggest of its parts, BrightSpace, a proprietary commercial LMS that is meant to replace Moodle, for no obvious pedagogical or technical reasons (it’s no better). It might make economic sense. I don’t know, but I do know that open source software typically costs a fair bit to own, albeit because of the things that make it a much better idea (freedom, flexibility, ownership, etc). There is probably a fair bit of time and money being spent with Desire2Learn (makers of Brightspace) on the things that we spent a fair bit of time and money on many years ago to make Moodle a bit less classroom-like. The choice no doubt has something to do with how reliably and easily it can be made to work with some of the other proprietary commercial systems that someone has decided will make up the ILE. It bothers me greatly that we are not trying hard to choose open source solutions, for reasons that will become clearer in the rest of this post. However, (pedagogically speaking) all the mainstream LMSs are much of a muchness, making the same mistakes as one another in very similar ways, so it probably won’t wreck too much of what we already do within Moodle. But, on its own, it won’t move us much further forward and we could do it better. That’s what the ILE is supposed to do – to make the LMS just a part of a much larger teaching environment, intimately connected with the rest of what the university does for or with students, and extensible with new and better ways of learning, teaching, and assessing learning.
Lego bricks make poor metaphors
When we were first imagining the ILE, though the approach was admirably participative, engaging much of the university community, I was very worried by the things we were encouraged to focus on. It was all about the functionality, the usability, the design, the tools, the pedagogies, the business systems that supported them. Those things matter, for sure, and should be not be ignored, but they should and will change and grow all the time: in fact, part of the point of building this thing is to do just that. Using the city metaphor, pretty much all that we (collectively) considered were the spaces (the rooms, mainly), and the stuff that goes on inside them, much like LMS designers thought of universities as just collections of classrooms in which teaching functions were performed. Space and stuff are, not uncoincidentally, exactly what Stewart Brand identified long ago as inevitably being the fastest-changing, most volatile parts of any town or city (after site, structure, skin, and services). I’ve written a fair bit on the universality of this principle across all systems. It’s a solid structural principle that applies as much to ecosystems and educational systems as to cities. As Brand observes himself, drawing from O’Neill et al (1986), the larger, slower-changing elements of any system affect the smaller, faster-changing more than vice versa. This is for much the same reasons that path dependencies set in. It’s about the prior providing the context for what follows. Flexible things have to fit into the gaps left by less flexible, older, pre-existing things. In physical spaces, of course these tend to be bigger and/or slower, but the same is true in virtual spaces, where size seldom matters that much, but hardness (inflexibility, brittleness) really does. Though lip service was paid to the word ‘integrated’ in our discussions, I had the strong feeling that the kind of integration we had in mind was that of a Lego set. In fact, I think we were aiming to find a ‘Lego Athabasca University’ set, with assembly instructions and a picture on the box. The vendors who came to talk with us made much of how effectively they could do that, rather than how effectively they could make it possible for others to do that.
Metaphors matter. Lego bricks have to fit together tightly, in pre-specified ways, especially if you are following a plan. If you want to move them around, you have to dismantle a bit of the structure to fit them in. It’s difficult to integrate things that are not bricks, or that are made by different toy companies to work in different ways. At best you get what Brand calls ‘magazine architecture’, or ‘no road’ architecture, beautiful, fit for purpose, intricate and solid, but slow to learn. Lego is not a terrible way to build, compared with buying everything pre-assembled, but it could be improved.
Signals and boundaries
Drawing inspiration from John Holland’s brilliant last work, Signals & Boundaries, I tried to make the case that, instead, we should be focusing on the boundaries (the interfaces between the buildings and the rest of the city), and the signals that pass between them (the people, the messages, etc, the forms they take and how they move around). In Brand’s terms, I wanted us to be thinking about skin and services, and perhaps even structure, though site – Athabasca University – was a given. Though a few people nodded in agreement, I think it mainly fell on deaf ears. We wanted oven-ready solutions, not the infrastructure to enable those solutions. Though the city metaphor works well, because we are talking about human constructions, others would result in similar ways of thinking: cells in bodies, organisms in ecosystems, brains, termite mounds, and so on. All are organized by boundaries (at many levels of hierarchy) and the signals that pass between them.
The Lego set metaphor – whether deliberately or not – seems to have prevailed for now. A lot of old buildings are being slated for demolition and a lot of new virtual buildings are now being erected as part of this development, many of them chosen not because of problems with existing buildings but so that they can more easily connect together and live in the same cloud. This will very likely work, for now, but it is not cheap and it is not flexible, especially given the fact that most of it is not open so, like a rental property, we are not allowed to fix things, add utilities, change the walls, etc, and we are wholly dependent on the landlords being nice to us and each other (knowing that some – ahem, Microsoft – have a long history of abusing their tenants). Those buildings will age. We will find them cramped. Some will age faster than others, and will have to be modified to keep up, perhaps at high cost. Companies renting them might go out of business or change their terms so we might have to demolish the buildings and rent/make new ones. We will be annoyed at how they do things, usually without asking us. We will hate the landlords who dictate what we can do and how we can do it, and who will keep upping the rent while not doing what we ask. We will want more, and the only way to get it will be to build extensions, buy new brick sets, if it is not enough to pay someone to remodel the interiors (and it won’t be). Of course, because most of the big structural elements will not be open source, we will not be able to do that ourselves.
What the ILE really should be
The ILE is, I think, poorly named, because it should not be an environment at all. Following the building metaphor, the ILE is (or should be) more like the system that connects a lot of buildings, bringing them together into a coherent, safe, livable community. It’s infrastructure and services; it is the roads, the traffic signals, the doors, the sidewalks, the water pipes, the waste pipes, the electricity, the network cables; it is the services – fire, police, schools, traffic control, etc; it is all the many rules, standards, norms and regulations that make them work together to help make an environment in which people can live, work, play, and grow. It’s part of the environment – the part that makes it work – but it is not the environment itself. The environment itself is Athabasca University, not just the tools, processes, and systems that support its functions. That includes, most importantly, the people who are part of the university, or who are visitors to it, who are not just users of the environment or dwellers in its walls, but who are or should be the most significant and visible parts of it, just as trees are part of the environment of forests, not users of the forest. Those people live in physical as well as other virtual environments (social media, Word documents, websites, etc) that the ILE can connect together too, to make them a part of it, so the spatial metaphor gets weird at this point. The ILE makes environmental boundaries fuzzy, permeable, and shifting. It’s not an ILE, it’s an ILI – an integrated learning infrastructure.
If we focused on the connections and interfaces, and on how information and processes need to pass across them, and if we thought hard about the nature of those signals, then we could build a system that is resilient, that adapts, that lasts, that grows, that evolves, with parts that we can seamless replace or improve because the interfaces – the building facades, the mains pipes, the junction boxes, etc – will mostly stay the same, evolving slowly as they should. This is about strategy, not planning, a way of thinking about systems rather than a sequence of things to do.
Some of the key people involved in the process realize this. They are talking about standards, protocols, and projects to build interfaces between systems, and imagining future needs, though they are inevitably distracted by the process of renting Lego bricks, so I am not sure how much they will be able to stay focused on that. I hope they prevail over those who think they are building a set of classrooms and tightly connected admin offices out of self-contained interlocking bricks because our future depends on getting it right. We are aiming to grow. It just takes one critical piece in the Lego building to fail to support that, and the rest falls apart like a… well, like a pile of bricks.
Brand, S. (1997). How buildings learn. Phoenix Illustrated. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/320919/how-buildings-learn-by-stewart-brand/9780140139969
Holland, J. H. (2012). Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems. MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/signals-and-boundaries
O’Neill, R.V., DeAngelis, D.L, Waide, J. B., & Allen, T. F. H. (1986). A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems. Princeton University Press. http://www.gbv.de/dms/bs/toc/025157787.pdf
Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. Denver, Colorado, 28. https://student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/papers/neil-postman–five-things.html